Long Term Progress for School Leaders: From Data to Strategy

How good is your department or school? To support schools with the analysis of their exam results this month, former headteacher and senior leader Michael Harpham and Barnaby Grimble take senior leaders and governors through the data analysis process and help them secure a clearer picture as to how good their own department or school really is.

There is an assumption in schools that school leaders know how to analyse data and draw both obvious and subtle conclusions and subsequent actions from a set of numbers. For leaders and governors who have managed to journey through life with minimal exposure to the complexities of large-scale data analysis, we want to make sure when data comes in, school  leaders and governors have a base-line set of skills to help interpret the data and provide a set of conclusions and questions to help drive further department or school improvement.

Above we see a grade book with raw data for a group of 20 students listed on the left, with their 3 target grades and the grades they are currently achieving in some of their subjects on the right.

RAG Rating

Strategy 1: RAG rate grades to provide an initial picture of the level of success of the teaching and learning in the classroom to date.

By RAG rating the grades, it becomes clearer as to which students are achieving below target in red, at target in amber and above target in green. Once we analyse these further, Amy, Danielle, Faye, Hayley, Izzy, Maisie, Oscar and Rowan are all achieving at or above their target grades.

The interpretation of this is:

RED = below target = Teaching and learning has not been as effective as expected.

AMBER = At target = Teaching and learning has been as effective as expected.

GREEN = Above target = Teaching and learning has been more effective than expected.

What’s going well (WWW)

Strategy 2: Identifying what’s going well helps start the narrative from a position of strength

RAG rating the grades helps identify what’s going well (focusing on the amber and green grades). Interestingly, in this example, 6 out of 8 of the students are female which suggests that girls are doing better in this particular year group than boys. In addition, 6 out of 8 of the students have target grades of a D which suggests that the method of teaching and learning suits the grade D students. Subjects in particular where this is the case include Photography, English Language, Sociology, Moving Image and to an extent, Psychology. This suggests the pattern that the arts and written subjects are taught and learnt very well.

Identifying the strengths in teaching (in this case the arts and written subjects) and learning (in this case girls and target grade D students). This provides initial lines of inquiry (girls / D grade students / the arts and language-based teaching does well in this year group / department / school) to follow up in further analysis.

Even Better If (EBI)

Strategy 3: Identifying what needs improving helps focus the narrative on potential issues and informs the narrative with possible future-actions.

RAG rating the grades also helps identify what’s not going well (focusing on the red grades). Interestingly, in this example, we see that Beth, Colleen, Eric, John, Keith and Peter are all underachieving in at least two subjects. When we look at the pattern, 4 of the 6 of the underachieving students are boys and all are targeted an A, B or C. This suggests we have an issue pitching our lessons to the more able students.

Psychology, Economics and Maths all have significant numbers of students underachieving. Being numbers based this suggests that this cohort has an issue with boys’ numeracy. Other subjects to check out would be Biology, Government and Politics, Media, 3-D Production and Design and ICT. Again, similar subjects that may have an issue with students and their maths.

Identifying the areas for development in teaching (in this case, numbers-based subjects) and learning (in this case boys and high ability students). This provides initial lines of inquiry (boys / high ability students / numeracy and maths teaching do not do well in this year group / department / school) to follow up in further analysis.

Cause and effect

Strategy 4: Maintain a balanced focus on the cause (successful / poor leadership / teaching) and effect (successful / poor learning) to help improve progress.

As we start to organise and group our grades and numbers, patterns emerge and enable us to get closer to the meaning behind the grades and numbers. We see what’s going well in teaching and learning, in this particular instance, in languages, students targeted to achieve a D and with girls. What is also clear in this example is that there are issues with the teaching of students targeted to get higher grades, as well as the learning of numeracy and the working practices of boys.

By bringing these together, we can see in this case, there is inconsistency in the teaching and learning of boys and girls in some subjects, inconsistency in the teaching and learning of higher ability and lower ability students and inconsistency in the teaching and learning occurring between subjects.

The issue is in the inconsistency of teaching and learning which suggests an issue with the consistency of practice and therefore staff development, monitoring and tracking and leadership. Thus, a question to the leadership of the department or school is to review what action is currently being taken and what action may be needed to improve both the quality and consistency of teaching, learning and leadership to increase progress.


Strategy 5: Gather evidence to triangulate, support and focus your lines of enquiry and from the data, inform the strengths to be celebrated and the issues to address.

To determine where the specific areas of strength and where the issues are, it is important to look at books and classroom practice, to see what evidence there is to support the initial analysis. This might include visits to lessons to see the quality of teaching, learning and leadership that is taking place in those lessons; discussions with staff and with the students about how effective the leadership and interaction is between the teacher and the pupils in lessons and what the quality of support is for all.

Key to these will be the pitch and pace of the lessons;  how skills and knowledge are taught through comprehensive, coherent and clear programs of study;  the effectiveness of formative and summative assessments; the quality of the teaching of exam technique and the ability to teach and the pupils to develop independent learning.

Further information and resources




Christodoulou, D. (2016)

DfE (2020)

Ofsted (2020)

Wiliam, D. (2020)

Mike Harpham

Connect with Michael on LinkedIn here.
Discover Michael’s website and courses here.
Read Michael’s book “Progress Plain and Simple” here.

Looking for more ways to make progress in the classroom?



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